Fender Telecasters are the pickup trucks of guitars. They’re tough, powerful, loud, and versatile.
Due to their simple, modular design, Teles are also customizable. With just a screwdriver and a few parts, anyone can drastically alter its look and feel.
But the one thing a tele lacks is a tremolo system. A tele will twang and cry and woof, but it won’t let me do a Surf-y dip or a Hendrix dive bomb or a Heavy Metal pinch squeal without some kind of Tremolo System.
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Tremolo System on a Tele – The Basic Issue
The bridge pickup on a Tele is a beast. Its bare parts are screwed into a metal plate, which is then screwed into the body.
Most tremolo systems would require us to remove this metal plate. We risk losing the twangy, chime-y, Fender-y tone. Fortunately, guitar techs have been cranking away at this problem for decades.
From the Factory
The most foolproof way of making your Tele whammy bar dreams come true is to buy a factory model with your desired tremolo system. They tend to be pricey.
Fender Custom Shop
If you have the cash, the Fender luthiers are happy to personally install a floating trem-block, like a Strat, or a Bigsby style roll bar onto a brand new Tele.
These folks are artists and mad scientists. A few clicks on the Fender custom shop website, and you’ll be having guitar fantasies.
The Tele is one of the most copied guitars. Many companies offer Telecaster-like guitars with a wide array of hardware choices. Floating trem blocks, Floyd Rose systems and Bigsby tailpieces abound.
But the further you stray from the old Tele design, the less of the classic Tele character remains.
Check out this Ibanez model, for example. Seems like a simple guitar, but with a hefty $2,000 price tag.
Check out this nasty double humbucker Schecter. This one is a little weapon, and at a more affordable price. I might spring for one of these soon.
If you’re handy with wood working, or have a guitar tech buddy who is, Bigsby installation kits are widely available. Try this kit from Sweetwater.
I’ve done one of these. If you follow the instructions carefully, it’s not too hard. You’ll just need a drill, a screwdriver and lots of patience. The whole project took me 3 hours of dedicated work.
Trem Block Kits
If you’re a pro at wood working and have the tools, you might consider a trem-block kit. Installing a tremolo block in a telecaster is serious guitar surgery. It requires precise routing and extensive alterations to the body.
I wouldn’t do it with a vintage guitar for sure. I’d definitely ask for some help from a pro. The materials are easily available on the web. You’ll have to have some wood shop tools available.
Sweetwater offers this meat and potatoes, plain old Strat trem set. You’ll have to buy some tension springs and additional hardware.
Super Vee Maverick Trem Systems has been making a Telecaster kit with a Strat style trem block on a split bridge plate, giving you the best of both worlds.
Their website has careful instructions and measurements for properly routing your Tele body. They also offer a mail in routing service that costs nearly as much as the hardware.
A company called Vega Trem, out of Spain, has created a kit that uses the existing string thru holes on a Tele, reducing the alterations needed.
The kit is priced at a hefty €260, but installation appears to be pretty simple, and maintains a good chunk of metal for the bridge pickup. I’m tempted to try it.
Is It Worth It?
Adding a tremolo to your Tele will cost you lots of time or money. Sometimes, major luthier work is required. But shimmery, warbly chords with all the beefy twang of a Tele might be too much to pass up. If you want to be the pride of your Surf band, and you’re handy with a drill, a Bigsby kit is the way to go.
Ever notice that you can play all of “Little Wing” except the turn around? If you got a little cash and an extra Tele, an experienced guitar tech can install a Strat style trem block. But this is a lot of work, and will likely cost between $300 to $500, plus hardware.
I might just as well buy something from the factory if I really needed a tremolo Tele, or even give in and buy a Strat. Or maybe I’ll find an old beater on eBay and slap a Bigsby on it. Then I’ll be in Twang Heaven.